Israeli troops were poised this week to move into the northern Gaza Strip to halt continued missile attacks on the nearby Israeli community of Sderot. But the action was delayed to see if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would do it using his own troops.
The decision of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to wait touched off a debate in Israel as to how long the government should give Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to act.
“We can’t give Abu Mazen more than a few days to start operating against terrorists and to prevent terrorism,” Yuval Steinitz, chief of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told The Jewish Week. “He must start using force to disarm these groups like Islamic Jihad … otherwise it’s a non-starter. He has to show us that although he’s named Abu Mazen, he’s not [Yasir] Arafat — not only by statements but by operations.”
He was referring to the fact that Arafat, the late Palestinian president, not only failed to halt terrorist attacks against Israel but encouraged and financed them.
“It’s of utmost importance that Abu Mazen start to disarm terrorist militias in a few days and finish it in a few weeks,” Steinitz added. “Otherwise we will do it ourselves. … In my view the only efficient way will be to capture the Gaza Strip for a few weeks, arrest thousands of militants, and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure — as we did in the West Bank.” Abbas has been seeking to negotiate a ceasefire with the terrorist groups that until now have refused to halt their attacks. Perhaps to emphasize their refusal, they sent a suicide bomber to an Israeli checkpoint in the Gaza Strip Tuesday shortly after Abbas arrived in the area to negotiate with them. The bomber killed an Israeli intelligence officer and injured eight other Israelis.
Uzi Dayan, who served as national security adviser to Sharon and his predecessor, Ehud Barak, said that despite his good intentions, Abbas “can’t deliver.”
“I’d be happy to be proved wrong,” he said in an interview Tuesday in New York. “He’s not the kind of a leader who will go against a large part of his people, and I don’t think that he has an interest to really fight Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.”
On Wednesday, the senior Palestinian security commander, Gen. Abdul Razeq Majaydeh, said that within two days his security forces would be deployed along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel “to prevent violations.”
A day earlier, the leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Jenin, Zacharia Zubeidi, announced that his group would halt all attacks on Israel. There were also indications that the group would be integrated into the Palestinian Authority’s national security forces. And the Palestinian Authority’s commander of special forces was quoted as saying that his men planned to disarm terrorist groups intent on continuing attacks on Israel.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that although he does “not rule out the possibility of some sort of Palestinian crackdown [by Abbas], the odds realistically are no more than 50-50.”
“Arafat never did it and it would be a huge departure from Arafat’s legacy, but that is precisely what the U.S. and British and maybe Europe expect that Abbas will do with his mandate,” he said.
The Israeli press also had its doubts that Abbas would act. Dan Shiftan, an academic specializing in national security, wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot that Abbas is no different than Arafat — Arafat encouraged terrorism and Abbas embraced terrorist leaders and is unable to stop the attacks. “It is clear that Abu Mazen cannot be a partner to negotiations to shape a historic compromise,” he wrote.
Moshe Ishon in the Israeli paper Hatzofeh said bluntly that Abbas “does not intend to take immediate steps to bring about an unconditional halt to terrorist activities.”
And Adli Sadiq, writing in the Palestinian paper al-Hayat al-Jadidah, said “the latest intensification of firing rockets and other operations such as the [attack] at the Karni crossing [in which six Israelis was killed] are meant to strengthen the factions’ positions … as if to say: ‘We are here and you cannot ignore us.’”
Israelis on the left argue that while Abbas is no moderate, he is a pragmatist Israel should deal with if there is ever to be a peace agreement. “If he wants to bring about genuine change in conditions, he needs us — not sitting on the sidelines but out there on the stage, with him,” wrote Yossi Beilin, an initiator of the Oslo peace process, in a Washington Post opinion article this weekSteinberg pointed out that the continued terrorist attacks after Abbas was sworn in last week, along with the challenge to his rule by the terrorist groups, were foreseen by Israeli analysts, “which is why there is no crisis atmosphere.”
He acknowledged that “Abbas is talking in Arabic much better than Arafat did” about ending terror attacks against Israel. And he said Abbas knows he must act “if he wants his troops to be paid next month.”
“They have to show the U.S., Europe and Japan that they can control terrorism, otherwise there is no benefit to pouring money into the Palestinian Authority if they are not in charge,” Steinberg explained.
But he stressed that Abbas must act quickly because “if the Israeli military goes in, any hope that the Palestinians will act is close to zero … and the confrontation would escalate.”
Sharon himself indicated that he is cutting Abbas very little slack, saying: “Abu Mazen doesn’t need a settling-in period. It’s not as if he doesn’t know what is happening in the field.”
Whether or not Abbas acts, Dayan (a nephew of famed military hero and statesman Moshe Dayan) said he believes Israel should proceed with its “policy of disengagement from the Palestinians.”
“We should do it even unilaterally if there is no partner,” he said. “We should decide our own borders based on security and demography to preserve a solid Jewish majority in Israel, and preserve it in a moral and legal way.
“I wouldn’t wait for Abu Mazen for a second. I am sick and tired of hearing what the Palestinians want to do but can’t deliver. We have to fight terrorism offensively and defensively, to operate in the whole area and at that same time to build a security fence.”
Dayan, who also served as assistant chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, noted that only about one-third of the security barrier has been erected and that Jerusalem and southern Israel are unprotected. He noted that he now chairs an organization, Security Fence for Israel, to promote the completion of the barrier as an essential element in the fight against terrorism.
Dayan said Israel is now at a crossroads, faced with the choice of making “territorial compromise to protect a Jewish democratic state or to keep all the areas and continue to rule the Palestinians and become a bi-national state.” The status quo is not an option, he said.
Although the 8,000 residents of Gaza are being ordered to begin evacuating the Gaza Strip this summer, Dayan said the evacuation should be sped up, but cautioned that while it represents “a step in the right direction,” the government should explain its ultimate goals. “Just to pay [the settlers] and drag them from there is not good enough,” he said, and recommended a national project be undertaken to “absorb these men and women [and] … take this painful opportunity to strengthen and promote the Negev and the Galilee [for relocation].”